T-Ball teaches teamwork to tribes of toddlers | Column

By John Hamer, For the Reporter

My 4-year-old granddaughter Esme is an “Iron Pig.” That’s the name of her T-Ball team, which is getting ready to play in the Mercer Island league this season. I’ve been watching them practice for the last few weeks. If you’ve never seen a T-Ball game, you have a treat in store. It’s hilarious, like herding kittens.

T-Ball is like softball or baseball, but instead of having a pitcher throw the ball to batters, they swing at a ball balanced on top of a short plastic pipe at home plate. They swing until they hit it, which sometimes takes a while. During practice, the other kids on the team spread out at the pitcher’s mound to field the ball.

Hit balls often go only a few feet, kind of like a bunt. All the kids storm toward it like football players trying to recover a fumble. They sometimes fight over who gets the ball. The grabber is supposed to throw it to first base — or in that general direction. Some hits go right through the crowd in the infield and they all chase after it while the hitter runs to first base — or in that general direction.

Parents stand at strategic spots acting as coaches, telling the kids to be ready and where to run or throw. The whole scene is totally chaotic and hugely entertaining.

My granddaughter came to practice last week wearing her princess dress, a pink and purple frock with white flowers on it. The first thing she did was sit on the ground in the infield and start playing in the dirt. She drew lines in the dust and buried her hands one at a time. Then she buried a ball.

A teammate joined her, and both filled their leather mitts with handfuls of dirt. That was more interesting to them than fielding ground balls. In the dugout waiting for their turn to bat, they spent time climbing the cyclone fence, then had trouble finding their helmets. Esme’s is pink.

When she was with other teammates lined up by the pitcher’s mound, a boy hit a short grounder. Esme rushed toward the ball, but tripped and fell flat on her face in the dirt. Then she found a short stick on the ground and started using it like a cane. She wasn’t injured, but just decided that limping might be fun. (The video is on my Facebook page if you want a good laugh.)

Yet as I watched, I began to realize that these kids were actually learning some important lessons from T-Ball. A bunch of “T-words” started popping into my mind, like pop-up fouls. Forgive me, but among them:

Teamwork: While they are on the field wearing their “Iron Pigs” hats and T-shirts, they are slowly grasping the concept that they are a team, probably for the first time in their lives.

Trust: They learn to rely on each other. They learn to trust the parents who act as volunteer coaches, teach them the rules (and maybe bring treats).

Tenacity: They learn not to give up, but to keep trying even when they make mistakes.

Toughness: They learn to get up if they fall – maybe after they tear up a bit first.

Timing: They learn that timing is the key to hitting, throwing and catching.

Targeting: They practice tossing balls at a big bucket and when one goes in, amazement ensues, along with some applause and “high fives.”

Time out: They learn that it’s OK to take a break if they’re tired, bored (or limping).

Thoughtfulness: They huddle in a group before practice starts and do a little cheer, then line up and “high five” the other team when the game is over.

OK, maybe I’m overdoing this “T” thing. They also learn cooperation, coordination, concentration … oops, there I go again. Cut me off. You can turn the page anytime. But here’s what some parents told me:

“They come with a teachable spirit,” said Lisa Cooper, who has two kids on the team. “They learn to take directions and follow the rules. They love being outside, meeting new kids and wearing the hats, the shirts, the helmets and the gear.”

Katie Kratzer, parent and coach, said: “Kids have a positive experience, get strong reinforcement, and it’s good sequential learning.“ Katie used to coach rowing in high school and college. She knows her stuff.

“You don’t really understand what they learn until later,” said Phil Smith, another parent. “I played catch with my father, and now realize that I learned a lot from him.”

Dan Kwan said the kids learn camaraderie, sharing, and how to execute the fundamentals: “Get in the ready position, like a frog to field the ball, like a crab to move sideways, like a crocodile to catch grounders. So They learn about animals! You can’t throw like a T-Rex, I tell them.” (Hey, another “T.”)

Chris Eder, who is with the Elevated Performance Academy in Bellevue, was helping out at practice the other day. “Baseball is the greatest game,” he said. “They learn to run, catch, and throw.” But, he noted, some kids are clearly more into it than others.

When it was Esme’s turn to bat, she was still carrying the short stick and walked to the batter’s box like a little old lady, limping. She finally put it down when the coach handed her the bat. She got a hit and ran to first. As other teammates got hits, she rounded the bases and crossed home plate with a big grin.

When my wife and I later asked her if she wants to be a baseball player when she grows up, she replied: “No. I want to be a scientist.” Maybe an archaeologist, digging in the dirt. That would suit her to a “T.”

John Hamer is a former Seattle Times editorial writer and columnist who has lived on Mercer Island since 1999. He was mediocre when he played Little League baseball. He was an OK fielder, but couldn’t hit. He now has four grandchildren and loves to watch them play. It suits him to a … well, you know. Email Jhamer46@gmail.com.